(Editor’s note: This is first in the three-part series looking at the issues that faced the city of Tyler and residents who lost water and power during the winter storm. Today is an in depth look into the past. The second part will focus on what caused the water issues during the storm. In the third part, city officials outline plans for the future)
Just two months ago, thousands of East Texans were facing grim circumstances as they dealt with blackouts, little to no water pressure, bursting water pipes and freezing temperatures — including a record-breaking -6 degrees — through a once-in-a-lifetime winter storm.
Before the February storm and in recent years, the city of Tyler focused on strengthening the infrastructure systems for its citizens.
It’s a water system that dates back to 1916 when the city purchased the Tyler Water Co. for $65,000.
“The last six years and currently, I think there’s really been a push to take care of infrastructure that may not have been a priority,” Tyler Mayor Don Warren said about three weeks after the storm’s end. “(Although) it was important in the past.”
Across the state and region, people faced rolling blackouts due to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ methods to maintain the state’s power grid.
In Tyler, the electrical issues led to the Lake Palestine Water Treatment Plant getting offline, causing low pressure and the need for residents to boil water for nearly a week.
City Manager Ed Broussard in early March recalled maintaining conversations with the electrical company Oncor before, during and after the winter storm.
“We were all very clear on both the pump station and the plant that power should not be turned off on those during any type of rolling outage,” Broussard said. “Oncor was in agreement with us; we were in agreement.”
In preparation for the electrical issues, Broussard said the city purchased multiple generators for traffic signals in the event of outages.
“Just going into the preparation for it, we already had the understanding that there was going to be electrical issues, not to the extent of what happened,” he said. “We did go ahead and purchase multiple other generators for traffic signals for the understanding that if we do have blackouts that continue at several major intersections when the power is out.”
While the city can’t use sites like Amazon or eBay, officials are able to make purchases with some leniency during emergencies to “acquire wherever (the city) needs to get the job done,” he said.
Ahead of the storm, there was also a focus on road safety as the crews worked to sand the major highways to ensure passage to hospitals.
“We have increased the amount of sanding devices we’ve had and the type we’ve had over the past three or four years,” Broussard said.
Over the years, the city of Tyler council and employees have taken a lead on improving the water and sewer systems, notably beginning around 2016 and 2017.
“A lot of it doesn’t get noticed, but it is essential and important that we do it,” Broussard said.
From fiscal year 2018 to October 2020, Tyler Water Utilities has replaced approximately 1.65 miles of water lines, primarily in the north side of town, when needed and as a part of the city’s 2-inch water line replacement program.
Broussard said the older parts of the city, such as within Loop 323 and northward is where most of the replacement of water and wastewater materials takes place.
South of Loop 323 and particularly Grande Boulevard were built with newer materials for water and wastewater lines, he added.
District 3 Councilwoman Shirley McKellar, who lives and represents parts of north Tyler, said she lost electricity during the storm, but her neighbors two streets from her had power, also in north Tyler. She said she never lost her water.
McKellar noted the value of land in north Tyler, recalling when she returned from overseas military service, Toll 49 developers wanted to buy her parents’ land. She said the offer was next to nothing.
“But all the property that was over in the south side of the city, that was used for Loop 49, they got an entirely different amount of money per acre. I didn’t sign the papers and when I got back in country, I carried them to court and said, ‘It’s not fair. You want to build a state highway, it’s just as important than the south side, north side, east and west, as it is in the other side so the money should be the same,” she said.
NAACP President Cederick Granberry, resident of northwest Tyler, said his electricity never went off and that his water pressure was the only thing affected.
“I think we have issues around the city in regards to our system as far as the (water) pipes,” McKellar said.
Granberry said as NAACP president, he hears stories about the struggles people went through during the storm and that he shares the same concerns.
“We have to ask questions until it makes sense,” he said. “I don’t think any of us how intense it was and how quick it happened. The records that were indicated to be broken by the meteorologist were going dating back to 1910. I’m always looking to see what type of records we’re breaking.”
City of Tyler History
When the city purchased the Tyler Water Co. for $65,000, that deed included Bellwood Lake located near the Cascades subdivision. Tyler Sewer Co. was purchased a year later.
In 1950, the water supply resources included just Bellwood Lake and some water wells. The maximum draw at Bellwood was three million gallons of water, while wells provided an additional five million gallons for eight million total gallons daily.
Now, the city’s average demand is 30 million gallons a day with a peak demand of 49.6 million gallons a day, according to records. Most of the city’s water comes from lake surface water, including Lake Tyler, Lake Tyler East and Lake Palestine.
The TWU distribution system has approximately 690 miles of water lines.
Lake Tyler was built in 1949 on Prairie Creek, a tributary of Mud Creek in the Angelina River watershed, according to a 1982 Tyler Water Utilities report. The lake was later expanded to have Lake Tyler East in 1967.
In 1965, the city gained rights to draw water from Lake Palestine. That same year, the water treatment facilities at Bellwood were retired and abandoned; however, the city does still own the lake.
Tyler’s two water treatment plants are Golden Road Water Treatment Plant (constructed in 1951) and Lake Palestine Water Treatment Plant (constructed in 2003).
Golden Road has a capacity of 34 million gallons a day and the plant has seen several upgrades and renovations. Lake Palestine has a capacity of 30 million gallons a day, which could be expanded to 60 million gallons a day, according to the city.
Water System Maintenance
Updates, upgrades and improvements to the Tyler Water Utilities have been ongoing, especially over the past five years.
“As far as addressing those infrastructure issues and have we caught up with the times? I think that’s where we have to really take a closer look at. Nobody could be prepared for what we went through, but we have to be. That’s our job as public servants and those that are put in charge of paying attention to those certain issues,” Granberry said.
He said this could also be helpful because it could point out what needs attention.
“I think the infrastructure downtown; north of downtown, east of downtown, it has needed to be looked at and addressed for a long time, but I think the question is, ‘How do we address it?’ That’s a big bill. That’s a lot of work. I think everybody’s been trying to figure it out, but we need to figure it out,” Granberry said.
According to documents obtained by the Tyler Morning Telegraph, the city has invested since 2016 over $17.6 million into its water system. This funding includes about $1 million for a water utility system inventory, model and master plan, $16 million in improvements and about $616,000 for routine maintenance and repairs to system components.
For example, the Troup Highway Booster Pump Station came online in September 2018, adding 7,100 feet of 12-inch diameter distribution lines and 30 check valve stations throughout the distribution system.
With the booster station, water pressure is increased and improved water pressure to homes and businesses. Preliminary work on the $3.1 million project began in 2014.
In 2019, the city reimbursed Genecov West Mud Creek, LLC $44,623 for the construction of an oversized 12-inch water main at Hollytree South Addition, which is north of Cumberland Road and south of Dueling Oaks. When the subdivision was designed, TWU required the developer to install a 12-inch water main instead of the minimum 8-inch water main.
This served as an extension to an existing 12-inch water main to provide adequate water supplies for future development in the area.
The city also took similar action in 2016 when Tyler Park Hill Ventures, LLC was reimbursed $51,536.10 for an oversized 12-inch water main at Guinn Farms Addition, Unit 2, a residential subdivision south of Roy Road and west of Rhones Quarter Road. According to the city, this was also done to ensure adequate water supplies for future development in the southeast corridor of Tyler.
Within the city of Tyler’s Code of Ordinances, it stated TWU will reimburse the cost difference of increasing the water line size from 8 to 12 inches.
With construction beginning last fall, the city’s Old Bascom Road Waterline Project is in progress to connect the water main on Southwood Drive to Old Omen Road. This would eliminate the need for easements (use of non-city land).
This project includes the installation of 4,546 linear feet of 12-inch PVC waterline, new fire hydrants, gate valves and air release valves to strengthen water quality and pressure in the water system by getting rid of dead end water mains.
This initiative will loop two parts of the system together and increase water flow and pressure within that part of town in light of its growth and development. Looping projects assist in keeping water moving through the system, while reducing the need for flushing at the dead-end main.
City crews have replaced 700 feet of 2-inch galvanized water main with 700 feet of 6-inch PVC on Crestway Drive. Also, a total of 300 feet of 2-inch galvanized water main on Noble Street was upgraded with 300 feet of 6-inch PVC.
TWU water distribution crews will be replacing 700 feet of 2-inch galvanized water main and upgrading this water main with 700 feet of 6-inch PVC on West Shaw Street.
LouAnn Campbell, city of Tyler public works and utilities public information officer, said PVC material is used for a variety of reasons, such as its smooth inner surface that can reduce pumping costs. The material is also immune to internal and external corrosion.
She noted ductile iron is highly durable when there is a good internal and external liner without damage. TWU still replaces water mains with ductile iron, when the situation is appropriate.
“PVC is lighter and can be made in many different lengths. Because it is lighter, transport costs are less and it is more efficient to haul and install,” she said. “PVC deflects according to the ground it is laid. Metal does not deflect and if the soil beneath it sinks eventually the pressure from the weight of the water and the pipe itself can cause the pipe to break.”
In January this year, TWU replaced 600 feet of 2-inch galvanized water main with 600 feet of 6-inch PVC pipe and installed two inline valves, one at Berry Street and New Copeland Road and one at Fannin Street and Berry Street. The new 6-inch water main looped Berry Street to New Copeland Road with 50 feet of 6-inch PVC. The looping project eliminates dead-end water main and improves water quality to Berry Street residents.
TWU also installed two 1-inch water service lines at 224 and 305 Berry Street. A new fire hydrant with a new branch valve was installed at Berry Street and New Copeland Road.
Tyler’s wastewater lines have grown as the city has developed as well. A total of 47% of the sewer lines are over 50 years old, and 22% are between 30 to 50 years in age.
The city has improved about 25 miles of sanitary sewer lines, which is within the first group inspected in the Consent Decree work.
The Consent Decree began in 2016 as an agreement with the city of Tyler and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make wastewater collection system upgrades as well as enhance the city’s existing programs for inspections, maintenance and cleaning of the wastewater system. The 10-year agreement was put in place on April 10, 2017.
Because of the agreement, the Tyler Water Utilities is required to develop and implement a Capacity, Management, Operation and Maintenance Program, which gives a framework for TWU to review the wastewater collection system and improve maintenance and operation practices.
The objectives include to better manage, operate and maintain the wastewater collection system, identify areas in the collection system with potential capacity constraints and improve the response to unauthorized discharges.
John Anderson and Ana Conejo contributed to this report.